With his acerbic, fast-talking wit and eternally exasperated demeanor, English comedian Ricky Gervais is a master of taking an already ridiculous situation and making it more so.
As writer, director and star of the BBC’s groundbreaking comedy series “The Office,” he made the daily grind at a regional paper wholesaling concern a microcosm of incompetence and ego. In his follow-up, HBO’s “Extras,” Gervais played a small-time actor chasing success, and then ill-equipped to handle it when it arrived. His film “Ghost Town” (which opened Friday), in which he plays a Manhattan dentist pestered by a roster of pushy spooks, is Gervais’ first leading role on film.
Although he specializes in neurotic, needy characters, in conversation Gervais is relaxed. Downright laid-back, in fact. During a hectic press junket for his new comedy, he took our call flat on his back.
“At the moment I’m lying down on a hotel bed looking across Manhattan, so it’s OK. It is grueling,” he sighed. “I just try to do it lying down. In the press interviews, I said I can’t sit in that chair for six hours, so I got two armchairs in. (The studio folks) were all worried, ‘It’ll look weird, it’ll look weird.’ I said I don’t care what it looks like, I’m sitting down in an armchair. There’s no point in forsaking comfort at work.”
The same easy-does-it ethos applies to filming, he explained.
“I’m not one of these actors who says, ‘I shouldn’t use my own hair in case I get typecast.’ Well, I do use my own hair and my own face, sometimes my own clothes because I don’t want to spend an hour in the makeup chair.”
It’s not laziness, but a matter of conserving his energy for matters that count - such as improvising on the set and making his fellow actors dissolve in laughter, as Gervais, a notorious giggler, frequently does himself.
“I did warn David Koepp (a celebrated screenwriter and ‘Ghost Town’s’ writer-director), ‘I’ll try only to ruin 30 percent of the takes.’ He reckons it’s nearer 50. The first scene was me and Greg Kinnear in a bar when he first tells me New York’s full of ghosts. And we were cracking up and I was going off on all tangents and doing stupid things. Greg was laughing and David was laughing and David Koepp came over and said ‘Do you think we should try one as it is in the script? Just in case?’ I went, ‘Yes, fine.’”
Gervais made up a significant amount of his dialog on the fly. “I wanted to change a few things and make it mine. I ad-libbed through every scene,” he said. “It is that 15 percent that’s peppered through the film that makes it interesting and real and funnier, dare I say it.”
Koepp (“Jurassic Park,” “Spider-Man”) welcomed the unscripted additions, because he knew that Gervais was an actor with ideas of his own. “There was mutual respect.” Gervais said. “He knew I’m a writer-director and there’s two ideas put forward and one of them’s the better one. And in a good partnership you go, yep, that’s the better idea, whoever comes up with it. So I think I got my own way,” he said, breaking into wicked giggles.
He also won a concession that many actors would find puzzling. Gervais insisted that he not do a kissing scene with costar Tea Leoni.
“It was a very specific thing. It ended with ‘They kiss,’ and I’ve always thought, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ I just think that it doesn’t mean anything. It’s like going, ‘We’ve run out of ideas.’ Or, ‘The end.’ What I really loved was in (the bittersweet Jack Lemmon-Shirley MacLaine comedy) ‘The Apartment,’ when instead of a kiss she went, ‘Shut up and deal.’ And I thought we should look for something like that, something a bit more timeless and a bit more grown up.
“What we came up with was Tea saying, ‘It hurts when I smile.’ And I say, ‘I can fix that.’ Which I think is so much classier and more timeless because it also shows they’re soul mates. It’s not just like ‘They lived happily ever after and they died in their sleep.’ Who knows that?”
Gervais toured Britain three times with popular one-man comedy shows and recently did an abbreviated American tour that will be shown on HBO Nov. 15. His feature comedy “This Side of the Truth,” which he wrote, directed and stars in, will be released next year.